Eating disorders aren't just a problem for young women. They can also afflict women during midlife and older adulthood, according to a provocative new U.S. study.
"There is a stereotype that these conditions primarily affect teenage girls, but we are seeing them in women who are in their 50s, 60s and even 70s," said the study's senior researcher, Cynthia Bulik, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The findings are based on an Internet survey of 1,849 women, aged 50 and older, from across the United States. About 3.5 per cent admitted to binge eating in the past month, 8 per cent reported purging in the past five years, and more than 70 per cent said they were trying to lose weight.
"Women in this age group are experiencing appearance pressures more than they ever have been before, and that pushes them down this avenue of unhealthy eating behaviours in order to maintain a body that is typical of someone younger," said Dr. Bulik, author of the recently published book, The Woman in the Mirror, which explores the links between body image and self-esteem. She is also director of the eating-disorders program at the University of North Carolina.
Previous studies have indicated a genetic component to eating disorders, she noted. But there is often an "environmental trigger" that brings on this type of behaviour.
"We are now seeing triggers throughout the life cycle," she said, adding that women are expected to look slim when they are young, middle-aged and older.
Just think of some of today's glamorous celebrities who are 60-plus: Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon, for instance.
In the real world, two-thirds of the population is either overweight or obese. "The difference between what you see in the mirror and what you see in the magazines is just so depressing for so many women," Dr. Bulik said.
The survey results, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, revealed that 66 per cent of the respondents were unhappy with their overall appearance. And, for some women, that dissatisfaction spurs them to adopt unhealthy methods for changing their shape, including diet pills (7.5 per cent), excessive exercise (7 per cent), diuretics (2.5 per cent), and laxatives (2 per cent).
Although the study is based on a relatively small sample of self-selected volunteers, the findings reflect a trend seen at medical clinics where many older women are struggling with eating disorders, Dr. Bulik said.
"I would say there is a similar trend in Canada," Jacqueline Carter, a staff psychologist in the eating-disorders program at the University Health Network in Toronto, said in an e-mail. There are "high rates of body dissatisfaction in older women" and it can "negatively impact mood and self-esteem," she added.
"My sense is that eating disorders in older women often go undiagnosed," said Dr. Carter.